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Science Gone Wrong: 10 Experiments That Were Fatal

When you add the irrational and unethical approach to developing scientific discoveries, scientific programs and experiments may go very wrong.

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Both the 19th and 20th century were periods of great scientific discoveries which enabled us to enjoy all the perks we have today. But science is nothing more than the process of “trial and error,” meaning that some damage is sometimes unenviably done if we want to discover something new. But when you add the irrational and unethical approach to developing scientific discoveries, scientific programs and experiments may go very wrong. These ten are the ones which taught us the lesson.  

Project MKUltra  

The MKUltra project was a CIA’s failed attempt to achieve absolute mind control. Details about the project have still not been completely revealed, but it started sometime in the 1950s and lasted until the mid-1960s. Subjects who participated often did it unwillingly. They were given a variety of drugs, most often LSD. They were then going through sleep deprivation, psychological torture, and at times, even sexual abuse. Some of the tests conducted were actually lethal. The research aimed to find a way to achieve mind control through the usage of chemical substances so that the chemical weapon could be patented, ready for use in the combat against the Soviets.  

Plague as the Biological Weapon  

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the plague killed almost half of Europe’s population and reducing the world’s population by nearly 100 million people. The Soviet Union saw the opportunity in the cause of this tragic event. They established a biological warfare research program attempting to find out how to weaponize the plague. The plan was to launch the plague by putting the virus in missile warheads, which would then be fired at enemies. Fortunately, the project never realized, but it was later discovered that besides plague, the Soviet program also held anthrax and smallpox.  

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment  

Tuskegee-syphilis-study doctor drawing blood from test subject. Image credit: National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) / Public domain

It is hard to say whether this experiment can actually be considered a scientific study, but obviously, these sorts of research were not that much about respecting the ethical standards. From 1932 to 1972, a study funded by the government was conducted in rural Alabama. African American patients sick from syphilis were purposely left untreated and given a placebo instead. Even though penicillin was found in 1947 and the disease could be treated with it, the researchers did not use it. Patients were told their symptoms come from bad blood. The aim was to explore syphilis as a disease and to see how it behaves over time. The study was lethal, as 28 people died.  

Willowbrook State School Hepatitis Tests  

Willowbrook State School. Image credit: Scan by NYPL / Public domain

In 1956, cruel research was conducted at Willowbrook State School at Staten Island. At the school, Dr. Saul Krugman conducted disturbing research as he purposefully infected children with hepatitis who were suffering from mental disabilities. The research aimed to follow how hepatitis is progressing with children. The research went for 14 years and resulted with a hepatitis outbreak in the school. Even more disturbing, parents who wanted to enroll children in the school were offered a substantially lower entrance fee in exchange to admitting their child in the research program. The experiment finally ended when other scholars and researchers gathered to criticize the program, demanding it to be shut down.  

The Ebola Guinea Pig  

The Ebola virus. Image credit: Dr. Frederick MurphyContent Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Frederick A. Murphy / Public domain

It is safe to say that ebola might be among the most dangerous viruses on Earth as it will kill, on average, 70 percent of those infected. The cure has not been developed yet. At the Vector laboratory at Novosibirsk in Siberia, scientists were researching the structure of the virus to contribute their knowledge in the process of developing the cure. Although the research facility was top-notch and very secure, a female researcher poked herself with a needle that carried the virus previously held in the contagious guinea pig that was used in the experiments.   

The Washington And Oregon Prison Radiation  

From 1963 to 1973, several Washington and Oregon prisons were involved in the research program led by the University of Washington. One hundred thirty prisoners were subjects in the research program and were exposed to various doses of radiation. The goal was to monitor the extent of radiation effects on humans and, more precisely – on their testicles. To make the matter even worse, these prisoners were promised paroles and were sometimes even enticed by cash bribes. When it was finally revealed just how dangerous the experiment was, all of the prisoners were given vasectomies. A class-action lawsuit earned them financial settlements for the cruelty they endured.   

The STD Study In Guatemala  

This so-called scientific study is another gruesome example of how unethical and dangerous experiments can cause a lot of harm. One thousand five hundred people in Guatemala were purposefully infected with a variety of STDs in the period from 1945 to 1956. Researchers targeted people in especially vulnerable populations, so subjects were mostly sex workers, prisoners, orphans, and others living in poor social situations. The study was apparently funded and organized by John Hopkins University, a prominent research center.  At least 83 deaths were recorded. Researchers used methods that were so unimaginably cruel that the subjects of the study joined the class-action lawsuit and are now suing the university for $1 billion dollars.  

The “Aversion Therapy” Project  

Back in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical community believed that homosexuality is a type of mental illness. It was also believed that it could be cured. Dr. Aubrey Levin was the psychiatrist in the South African military and was also the head of the program of developing the “aversion” therapy. The goal of the program was to develop a method of “curing” homosexuality by using chemical castration and electric shocks. The program was actually an organized torture program that was conducted in South African military and was approved under apartheid. During the program, from 1971 to 1989, the researchers also conducted over 900 sex-change operations.   

The Trinity Test  

The Trinity explosion, 16 ms after detonation. The viewed hemisphere's highest point in this image is about 200 metres (660 ft) high. Image credit: Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory / Public domain

World War 2 was all about the competition between the involved countries to create the most effective weapons and war methods. As the U.S. was trying to catch up with the German nuclear program, the secretive nuclear Manhattan Project was developed. The program resulted in the first-ever atomic bomb. But before it was put to use, it had to be tested. The detonation test, secretly coded as The Trinity Test was the first nuclear test in the world. It happened in a desert in New Mexico in 1945, and it was surrounded by panic from some in the scientific community. One group of scientists was fairly confident that the bomb will not make an impact larger than planned, while the other group believed the detonation could cause unpredictable devastation. How did it go wrong? You could say it went wrong by going well – the detonation went fine, and the dangerous nuclear weapon was successfully developed. 

Chernobyl  

The memorial to the firefighters of Chernobyl, a monument that pays tribute to the first responders to the disaster in April 1986. Many of these firefighters were exposed to large doses of radiation in the minutes and hours following the accident. Image credit: IAEA Imagebank/Wikimedia.org

In 1986, the nuclear experts in the Soviet Union really learned what it means when science goes wrong. The workers in Chernobyl reactors were conducting a regular reactor test on April 26. But for some reason, they did not turn the backup cooling system on while using an insufficient number of boron-carbide rods to control the fission. The result? One of the reactors actually became a nuclear bomb in itself as the fireball was created inside and caused an explosion. 100 times more radiation was released than it was by bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. Eventually, more than 4000 people died, and thousands were left disabled. In the end, it was revealed that it was not the faulty science to blame but a human error made in poor management of the reactor.   

About the Author

Ivan loves writing, music, audio production, and social sciences. He lives by the words of one famous sociologist who said that "sociology is a martial art". When he's not writing, he enjoys playing his Stratocaster and video games.

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